If you can get past how horrifying it is, the looming "sequestration cuts" crisis is fascinating. It's like watching a bunch of gambling addicts play craps by throwing dice into a four-dimensional wormhole. There are so many variables that neither side can possibly know the true outcome of a failure to make a deal – which means the only certainty is that what we're watching is irresponsibility on an epic scale, wherein both of our major political parties seem to prefer government by random outcome over one managed by sensible compromise.
Obviously, most of the problem was originally driven by the intractability of a Republican Party energized politically by its Tea Party base, which preferred the nuclear option of a default or a government shutdown to increased debt and/or new taxes. These fine folks taped sticks of dynamite to their chests and threatened to blow the government, its credit rating and our entire budget mechanism to the moon if we didn't make massive spending cuts – a wild ploy that may not have made a ton of patriotic sense given the catastrophic possibilities of, say, a default, but certainly helped the party solidify its relationship with its base.
Watching the original Republican debt-ceiling warriors furiously shake their fists over this business reminded me of that great line by Claude Rains in Casablanca, when his Captain Renault character tells Humphrey Bogart why he had to be so rough in tossing Rick's nightclub in search of the missing letters of transit. "I told my men to be especially destructive," Rains said. "You know how that impresses Germans."
This "let's blow up the American credit rating" ploy impressed hardcore anti-spending types in the same way. It was crazy, but maybe only slightly more crazy than both of the parties have consistently been for most of the last 20 years, when the two sides have continually failed to hammer out workable budgets and instead have mostly just let the national airplane fly mindlessly forward using the laziness-enabling autopilot mechanism of a continuing resolutions, or CRs. Despite the fact that working out budgets is mostly what we hire members of Congress to do, they seem to have a terrible time doing it on time, and instead routinely rely upon the CR process (in which the two sides basically agree to put things off until later) to keep funding levels static for some ludicrously short-term period like six months.
The failure to work out sensible budgets makes it impossible for government agencies to make long-term plans, and instead leaves them scrambling to spend money in the short term. It's an incredibly stupid way of doing business and if these people weren't on television so often, ranting and raving like baseball managers arguing a safe call at the plate and playing to the home crowd by pointing fingers at the other side, they would probably just do what members of Congress traditionally did in the pre-mass-media age, which is quietly and (mostly) sensibly work things out, getting as much as they could for their own constituents without crossing the line into antipatriotic acts of self-destruction – like a national default, for instance.
But since those days of sensible bipartisanship are gone, what we're left with is this. Both sides decided to play political chicken with our economic futures. Certainly the Republicans were more willing to pull the pin here, but the Democrats also gambled.
In agreeing to this crazy deal a year and a half ago – a deal they were, admittedly, forced into – the Dems banked on the notion that the Republicans would never countenance deep cuts to the Pentagon and in that way leave themselves exposed politically to accusations of making the country less safe.
But the Republicans – humorously if you can still find humor in this – have not yet blinked here, which is why the Obama administration is shamelessly rolling Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano out this week to make sure Americans everywhere know that terrorists will be crawling through their children's bedroom windows as early as next week if the Republicans don't back down on this budget thing. ("I don't think we can maintain the same level of security . . . with sequester," she said, adding that the impact will grow over time, like "a rolling ball.")
In a comically blunt use of reverse race-baiting politics, Napolitano added that she would have to furlough 5,000 border patrol agents if the sequester cuts took place, essentially threatening Republican voters with an influx of immigrants from Mexico if a deal isn't reached.
We hated it when George Bush threatened us with the specter of terrorist attacks to get what he wanted politically, so we ought to be hating this, too, although fortunately it hasn't gotten quite to Bush levels yet – I'm assuming we're still weeks away from Obama himself going out to the Rose Garden to tell reporters that unmanned terror drones will be spraying poison over New York City if the Republicans don't give him his budget deal.
The Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on the notion that $85 billion in annual cuts isn't all that much (and considering that the Fed doled out more than that to Citigroup alone in just one month of 2009, their argument makes some sense) and the country will barely notice the damage if we have to go over this particular waterfall. The political capital they may lose with the Pentagon in (potentially) letting this happen is an interesting side issue, but one most Americans probably aren't losing much sleep over.
The whole situation reminds one of a family so dysfunctional that its members can't communicate except through desperate acts. Mom keeps getting found passed out next to empty bottles of aspirin or mouthwash, Dad keeps getting pulled over for DUIs with hookers in the passenger seat, sis listens to death metal and is saving up for a bus ticket to meet some 40-year-old in Montana she met on the Internet – but you'd never know it on most days because nobody in this family talks.
This is kind of the same thing we're seeing in D.C. Both parties understood that the debt situation had to be addressed. But neither side could think of a way to work with the other party to get that done in a way that didn't outrage its base. So what we ended up with is an insane gamble: The two sides created a system of automatic cuts that may or may not happen, and both parties are now banking on their ability to manipulate the media to blame the other side for any fallout that may occur if those cuts take place.
In other words, instead of getting together and creating an actual budget that both sides would have to sign off on and own, they created a budget-cutting mechanism that each side will try to pass off as the creation of the other.
Polls show that most Americans will overwhelmingly blame the Republicans if a deal is not reached, which probably makes sense, since the Republicans were the ones who first drew the line in the sand. But the Republicans are acting like they don't care about these polls, which is also interesting.
They may be gambling that cuts will take place and they will be proved right by the lack of a catastrophic consequence, which will lead to them later on being celebrated for showing such backbone. They may be gambling that they can convince Americans that it was actually the Democrats who refused to compromise and enter real dialogue.
Whatever it is, the whole thing sucks. It's like being permanently stuck in the NFL lockout story. Do we really have to do this every three months for the rest of eternity?